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Pygmalion (tour – Cambridge)

One of the troubles with Shaw's "Pygmalion" for a post-1958 audience is that Lerner grabbed so many of the catchiest phrases for "My Fair Lady".

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Not that the pace of David Grindley's new touring production allows the audience any time to recall a Loewe melody – you might describe it as distinctly brisk.

Charlotte Page, Rachel Barry, Alistair McGowan & Paul Brightwell
© Manuel Harlan

A burst of opera introduces us to old Covent Garden market, where drenched theatre-goers, porters who just want to get on with the job, street-walkers hoping for just one more punter and flower-sellers arranging their baskets are sheltering.

If Jane Lambert's Mrs Eynsford-Hill, her daughter Clara (Anna O'Grady) and son Freddy (Lewis Collier) are slightly out of place here, then the incursion of Rachel Barry as Eliza stirs things up nicely. The phonetics experts Colonel Pickering (Paul Brightwell) and Professor Higgins (Alistair McGowan complicate this first act's finale nicely; all the characterisations are razor-sharp.

Designer Jonathan Fensom uses a subdued palette for his flexible pieces of set and Jason Taylor's lighting complements this. The sense of period – the sunset of the Edwardian age which will dissolve into the mud of Flanders a mere year later – is very well done.

Eliza's ambition to work in a shop rather than at street corners has its echo in Clara's frustration that her mother's limited means might blight her future. Her brother, naturally, has no such concern.

Barry really doesn't come fully into her part until the third act, when – after a few months of intensive tuition by Higgins, Eliza is introduced into his mother's drawing-room – she takes centre stage and runs away with the play.

McGowan is very funny as Higgins, for whom social conventions are an absolute waste, though Rula Lenska as his mother knows how to put him in his proper place. Jamie Foreman as Eliza's father, that self-proclaimed member of the undeserving poor, dominates his scenes as a real force of nature. Charlotte Page makes housekeeper Mrs Pearce equally credible.

Shaw revised the play in 1941 and his opposition to any hint of a romance between Eliza and Higgins – rather than Eliza striking out on her own as an independent phonetics teacher or marrying Freddy and keeping him in his accustomed way of life through her hard work – is well-known.

He detested the ending which Pascal dreamed up for his film, duplicated in the musical. Grindley's ending has us wondering "what happens next" with its hint of ambiguity.

One can't help feeling that it's going to be up to Mrs Higgins and the Colonel to make sure that everything settles down satisfactorily. But that's because both Lenska and Brightwell make more of their roles than perhaps the author intended.

Pygmalion runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 8 March then tours nationally until 21 June.